Can you imagine how hard life was in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century here in Ireland? Most people lived from hand to mouth, subsisting on too-small farms, that were over-worked and hopelessly inadequate to amply feed the too-big families of the poor tenant farmers who made up the largest proportion of the people in Ireland. Life was uncertain. Aside from being poor, they were governed in the main by antagonistic Protestant and Presbyterian English settlers, who themselves had a short life expectancy. War, famine, disease and accidents were the more likely cause of death for most people. For women, child-birth was one of the biggest killers. Life was cheap, hard and uncertain. Death did not discriminate, rich and poor died at an astonishing rate. The dead were a fact of life. They were mourned by their loved ones, buried quickly, and but for a few, quickly forgotten.
Until this century, life expectancy was short, very short, less than forty years for most people. If you lived to be fifty you were considered a rarity and if you made it to sixty or seventy or eighty, you were an elder, a revered personage, a respected sage, for you had seen two, or three, or four generations come and go and your were a store of learned experience that younger people could access, verbally, because you had witnessed events and were able to recount them first-hand.
On my walking tours of Galway ( www.galwaywalks.com ) I tell my visitors about the intrinsic value of the story-teller or 'shanachie' in Irish culture. The shanachie was a revered and respected individual, poor no doubt, but hearkening back to the minstrels who lived with the ancient Irish nobility and recorded their histories. Not all shanachies were old, but all were able to tell a good tale, especially when gathered around the hearth in the long winter nights. Family histories and legends were passed down from generation to generation in this way, from father to son, mother to daughter, but in ear-shot of the elders, who would act as editors of the tales, correcting, embellishing, reinforcing the stories before they themselves passed away.
So too it was with ballad singers and poets. The wandering musicians who went from village to village sang their songs, recounted stories, spread the news of the day and relied on local hospitality for their lodging and food, because no one had money to pay for their services and the 'Big Houses of the irish nobility were long gone, replaced by 'Planters' who had no interest in the 'old Irish tales'. This reliance on travelling minstrels became even more common during the Penal Laws and up until the Famine, when the Irish language, religion and culture were suppressed and the ordinary Irish relied on itinerant musicians for entertainment and news. They kept the traditions alive, the music, the stories, the faith.
After the great Hunger however, from 1842 on, emigration, evictions and famine finally broke the back of millennia of Irish culture. There was a flight to the towns and rural traditions were quickly forgotten, unless captured in the imagination, tales, ballads and poems of these often under-estimated folklore collectors, the musicians and shanachies of a bye-gone era. Luckily for us some of these 'Oral Histories' and 'Folk-Tales' were recorded and collected in the 1930's and 1940's by the 'Folklore Commission' and have been saved, but much more was lost, died with the people and the tumbled cottages, buried forever in a restless grave.
A hundred years or so after the Famine, people like 'The Clancy Brothers' and 'The Dubliners' emerged from the cities and entertained us with a new genre of Irish Music. They sang songs we had never heard before and we embraced them, these new brand of minstrels, our latter-day shanachies. The songs they sang were really the stories and poems of the past, handed down, generation to generation, now put into ballads. they breathed life back into our folklore and the 'Folk' movement blossomed. We now called our shanachies folk-singers.
Luke Kelly was one of our best folk-singers. A founding member of The Dubliners, Luke collected songs and poems like other people collect stamps or rare coins. He collected many of his songs in England where he worked as a younger man. England, like Ireland had also lost touch with its own shanachie tradition. Luke was the quintessential story-teller, but one with a singing voice that once heard will never be forgotten. The world is so lucky to have had such a balladeer. He and his fellow musicians, including Christy Moore and Ewan McColl have saved an entire tranche of Irish and British folk history from oblivion.
Last night I made a little time to research a poem/ballad I'd never heard of, 'The Unquiet Grave'. It was alluded to by the widow of Luke Kelly (Luke of the Dubliners, who died 30 years ago, yesterday). Luke apparently sang this song and she mentioned it in an interview yesterday on RTE as her favourite memory of him, for obvious reasons, when you read it. It is an ancient poem, one that probably existed in parts, and in other versions for over five hundred years, but the sentiment of loss and of undying love is powerful and utterly timeless. It is a true folk-tale.
Enjoy...but be prepared, it is a very moving piece.
"The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.
"I'll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I'll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day."
The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
"Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?"
" 'Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek."
"You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.
" 'Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that e're was seen
Is withered to a stalk.
"The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away."
'The Unquiet Grave - A street ballad that was collected by the Harvard scholar, Francis James Child, in his unfinished ten volume collection, 'The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1892-98)'. Without him, this little story which could have its roots in Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales, may have been lost forever. We do not know where or when Luke Kelly found this ballad, but he did, and it is beautiful. And so, in honour of Luke Kelly, the day after his anniversary, (his 30th anniversary was yesterday the 30th of January) this is his version of a timeless story of tragic true love.